The partnership between the federal Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence departments has only become more important as Australia’s national interests face greater challenges, according to DFAT secretary Frances Adamson and defence force chief General Angus Campbell.
Hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, the two leaders on Wednesday discussed the nature and relationship of diplomacy and security during these unprecedented times.
Key areas of concern included the Indo-Pacific region, which Adamson warned has recently become “significantly more contested and polarised”, and the US-China relationship.
“DFAT, with Defence and others, has worked closely with US counterparts to continue to promote a region that is open, inclusive and rules-based,” she said.
“At the same time, China – a global power in its own right, with a sense of itself every bit as significant as that of the United States – is not standing still.
“The relationship between the US and China was already becoming more competitive prior to the pandemic and, since the crisis began, tensions have increased on almost every front. Yet Australia’s relationship with China, while more complex than ever, has never been more consequential to our national interests.”
The secretary noted that the US has continued to make a “vital contribution” to Australia’s Indo-Pacific interests.
Fighting grey-zone activities
The recent Defence Strategic Update warned of “grey-zone” activities which have expanded in the Indo-Pacific.
Campbell explained that grey-zone referred to the use of a variety of techniques that try to coerce a particular state’s policy objectives without pushing so far as to provoke a military conflict.
“This is not new. This has been an approach by states for millennia. The techniques that are available, some of them are new. The cyber domain techniques are brand new and they can be at scale, they can be globally ubiquitous, and they can wheel extraordinary perception impact,” he said.
“The modern world provides a much more powerful set to influence political leaders and populations.”
The strategic update stated that in the Indo-Pacific, grey-zone activities have ranged from militarisation of the South China Sea to active interference, disinformation campaigns and economic coercion.
“Defence must be better prepared to respond to these activities, including by working more closely with other elements of Australia’s national power,” the paper said.
Campbell and Adamson noted that ensuring Australia’s neighbours were equipped to deal with such behaviours was important.
“This space is now very active, it’s a modern expression of a very old technique, it’s one that we’re going to have to live with and we’re going to have to work to deny — on occasions to defeat — constantly into the future,” Campbell said.
“And I think that that is something we can help others with, but each nation will have to think about understanding its national interests, and understanding what it wishes to pursue in the world … in terms of having the foundation for them to ask the question, ‘what can we do with this grey-zone activity?’.”
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Diplomacy and defence were two sides of the same coin in terms of comprehensive national power, according to Adamson.
“It has long been understood that ‘war represents a failure of diplomacy’. As diplomats, we cannot allow diplomacy to fail,” she said.
“We need to continue to invest in our diplomatic capabilities and strengthen our capacity to effectively prosecute Australian priorities and interests overseas. To paraphrase my good friend General Campbell, if we can get this right, his expensive military tools can stay in the shed.”
Campbell agreed, stating these challenging times required a “team Australia effort” — a joined up, innovative response.
“The beauty of that interplay in particular between Defence and foreign policy officers, diplomats out in the field, who have the touch of the setting, is to be able to move the scale of Defence and make sure it’s constantly pointing in the right direction,” he said.
“And that’s dynamic and adaptive. Left to our own devices we can quickly and unintentionally become a blunt instrument. But the world doesn’t need blunt instruments, it needs a very finely polished response to complex challenges. And that means the feedback loops, the response that we can offer to DFAT and others, they can offer to us, constantly adjusting and producing for Australia.”
Diverse challenges require diverse people
As of June this year, 40% of DFAT posts were led by women, which Adamson said was the department’s highest proportion ever.
“To be a modern department, we have to represent the diverse, outward-looking Australia that we serve,” she said.
“Diversity isn’t an end in itself. It’s a source of strength; it makes us more effective. It gives us access to a wider pool of ideas, to fresh ways of thinking through old – and new – problems.”
Campbell agreed that having a diverse range of people can strengthen the workforce, comparing it to the different types of players needed to fill a cricket team.
“I unreservedly want the best talent that I can get for the ADF, and then more generally the Australian government. Now that’s blind to gender and to any other way you categorise human beings,” he said.
“If you’re open to seeing talent, you get a stronger organisation. So there’s an enormous amount of self-interest, but underlying that is a basic ethical belief in the equality and the potential of all our citizens. And what’s not to like.”
Adamson admitted that DFAT “needs to do better” in order to truly represent Australia’s diverse population, particularly in representing Indigenous groups and people with disability.